Being a good corporate neighbour means to have friendly, helpful, relationships between employees and their hosts to put a human face on the industry. Surely that is an asset that mining, the world’s least trusted industry cannot afford to ignore?
However, the industry’s willingness to do more to focus on neighbourliness has yet to attract attention from investors, insurers, or industry analysts; it does not feature in ESG or triple bottom line accounting. Nevertheless, the impression is gained that most ordinary people, in most societies, are more likely to set more store on a mining company’s reputation for neighbourliness than they do on high-profile giving for worthy causes, or well-advertised corporate commitments to blue sky planetary improvement.
Neighbourliness has long been important for mining operations since operations are frequently located in the back of beyond, far from major cities, in regions where government health and education services are of recent provenance. Exploration geologists have long been aware of just how useful neighbourliness can be for their success.
Around the world, miners have earned a reputation for helping their neighbours by providing medicines and first aid, using earth moving equipment to help upgrade small tracks, or engineering improved water supplies; they have also done what they could to house, feed and help neighbours affected by natural disasters or extreme weather events.
Neighbourliness has lubricated relationships helping to secure tenure and good labour relations; it has encouraged consent for expansion, generated new development opportunities, and earned favourable permitting, regulatory and taxation decisions. Without neighbourliness, companies have had pushback from communities, endured reputationally damaging civil society campaigns, and experienced frustratingly lengthy permitting delays, and costly labour disputes.
Key employees have been reluctant to bring their families to site; it has been harder to attract and retain high-quality personnel. Host- employee exchanges were welcomed when the miners understood, and observed, local rules for behaviour. This spontaneous sociability has covered a broad spectrum of interactions: managers, service providers, medical personnel, equipment operators and their families, and together with local landowners have attended cultural festivals and church services; company wives have cooked food for sale to help a local charity distributing prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs to the disabled.
Weekends have seen employees and their hosts hunting, fishing, playing football, or going out in small boats together. Participation has also involved long distance running, amateur dramatics, singing in choirs and listening to music, painting landscapes, gardening, collecting butterflies, or watching birds.
Security personnel have taught small children how to behave when there is heavy traffic on the roads; a company nurse has used her spare time to visit neighbourhood health facilities and spend time with those who needed her help; a government teacher has gone out of his way to help the child of an employee; an engineer has offered career advice; another has fixed a communal water pump, an accountant has volunteered to provide coaching for a basketball or hockey team. These spontaneous exchanges have not only provided practical information for the design of community development initiatives, they have also, on occasion, shown that the miners did indeed have a social licence to operate. If the importance of neighbourliness is to be recognised and encouraged the mining industry will have to do this job itself.
What is not to like about an activity that has employees working for the company all the hours that are available? What about GRI, Global Compact, ISO2600, and UNEP? Without visiting, and developing very new skill sets, there would be little point in having these organizations include neighbourliness in their League Tables. Nor would it make much sense to ask big UN aid agencies who also do not have neighbours for advice; global organizations cannot ‘see’ mining’s neighbours. What does seem important is the fact that the balance between global commitments with local obligations has been disturbed by too great an industry emphasis on the pursuit of global commitments at the expense of sites’ ability to respect the different neighbourhood traditions encountered in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
With the obvious exception of behaviour infringing fundamental human rights, neighbourliness has depended on miners recognizing and accepting, and working with and around, the different cultural, economic, and social beliefs, values, and attitudes of their hosts as well as their right to choose both their own direction of travel and the speed at which they wished to proceed. Within a single country different sites could have quite different rules and traditions for who got what and why.
Companies are relying on the art of the deal. Deal done, the company then reduces community functions and spending to care and maintenance levels. Business in the community also needs sentiment because miners need to show they care about their neighbours and their welfare.Relying on commercial transactions – one-sided, standardized, routinised, rule-bound, lawyered arrangements and agreements – sends the wrong message because these transactions have been designed to maximise company advantage rather than to give equal priority to neighbourhood aspirations.
These same companies then assess their own social performance and when their glossy corporate reports suggest that employees are performing socially it usually turns out that these claims are not the outcome of consultation with neighbours but are the result of a comfortable process of company self-assessment. In fact, only Indigenous Peoples are now consulted when it comes to how company personnel behave in their territory, and they alone have their judgments count.
As Senior advisor Rio Tinto 1995-2015, Glynn was responsible for initiating the design of policy and implementation for that company’s Community Relations at greenfield and brownfield sites in over 60 countries. Before Rio Tinto Glynn was a World Bank staff member and advisor to governments and their leaders on public sector reform.